Student Life 101: Even Those ’Gay-Friendly’ Colleges Aren’t Really

by Peter Cassels

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday September 27, 2010


The results of a new survey may destroy the commonly held perception in the gay community that LGBTs on the nation's college campuses enjoy protections that keep them safe.

Relatively few colleges and universities have policies that ban discrimination against LGBT students and employees. Less than 8 percent have such policies in place.

Even those can't guarantee that students are safe from bullying and other forms of harassment and abuse.

The nation's first comprehensive survey of LGBT students, faculty and staff at America's colleges campuses was released Sept. 23 at a briefing hosted by openly gay members of Congress on Capitol Hill. Considering the reputation college campuses have of being ultra-liberal, trendy and sexually aware (not to mention relentless criticism from right-wing bloggers, talk radio hosts and religious leaders for it), the results were surprisingly downbeat.

Indeed, the survey is an eye-opener for those of -- probably nearly all us, gay straight, left, right -- complacent enough to believe that college life is a walk in the park (or on the campus). Even choosing one of those schools touted as being particularly "gay friendly" doesn't guarantee a happy time in academia.

The 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People reports on the experiences of nearly 6,000 students, faculty, staff and administrators in all 50 states. It shows significant harassment of students and a lack of safety and inclusiveness, even among those supposedly "welcoming" institutions.

As if to dramatize the report's findings, on the same day advocates unveiled the study, members of the University of Rhode Island's GLBT Center and Gay-Straight Alliance staged a sit-in to demand that its administration take immediate steps to ensure the safety and inclusion of LGBT students and employees after a rash of anti-gay incidents.

Harassment, the Closet, Even Physical Assaults

The survey's key findings included these shocking statistics:

A quarter of respondents reported experiencing harassment. More than 80 percent of those said sexual orientation was the reason.

Just under 40 percent of transgender respondents reported harassment and 87 percent of them blamed their gender identity or expression.

A third of those surveyed have seriously considered leaving their institution because of the challenging climate.

More than half said they hide their sexual or gender identity to avoid intimidation.

More than a third reported they fear for their physical safety.

LGBT people of color suffer a double whammy. They are significantly less likely to feel comfortable on campus because of racism and homophobia.

Only about 600 colleges and universities include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies, according to Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, the organization that commissioned the survey. The number that includes gender identity and expression is much lower: less than 200.

"There's a lot of work to be done," Windmeyer said in a phone interview. "We have to applaud the efforts that have been made the last 10 years on these few campuses. They've made great strides in creating a safe environment. But they represent a tiny sliver of the colleges out there."

Of the vast majority of colleges that don't have non-discrimination policies, Windmeyer said gay advocates "need to hold their feet to the fire and tell them that to achieve academically LGBT students need to have the same safety and learning environment as all other students."

The unfriendly colleges don't have to start from scratch, he pointed out. For instance, they can apply the model the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network began developing two decades ago to create safe schools for elementary and secondary students. Partly as a result, more than a dozen states now have anti-bullying laws that are LGBT inclusive.

Ranking the Institutions

What about the books that rank gay friendly and unfriendly colleges? In an op-ed piece last year in the Advocate, Windmeyer contended that the popular Princeton Review guide, which includes the best and worst ones for LGBTs, uses an outmoded, oversimplified and inappropriate methodology.

Windmeyer himself authored a guide that's based on scientific research, but it only lists the 100 best schools.

Iowa State: LGBT Coordinate Makes a Difference

EDGE interviewed two student leaders who spoke at the Capitol Hill briefing that the tiny, all-Democrat Congressional LGBT Caucus (Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Jared Polis of Colorado) hosted.

Both students attend universities that have LGBT-inclusive policies, but they aren't immune from harassment.

A senior at Iowa State University, Jacob Wilson, 24, is president of his fraternity and will co-chair the 2012 Midwest Bisexual, Lesbian, Gay, Transgender and Ally College Conference.

Wilson comes from a religious, conservative family in Salem, Mo. When he was 19, encouraged by family, friends and his church, he entered an ex-gay reparative therapy program in Memphis, Tenn.

"I was really depressed and desperate for something," he explained. "I had just gotten out of my first significant same-sex relationship."

"It was very challenging," Wilson continued. "The objective is to wear you down and build you back up. I was told that gay people cannot have successful relationships or be successful in life."

The experience did more harm than good. "It caused a lot of stress - mental, emotional, family stress, relationship stress," he reported. Today, Wilson speaks about the harm reparative therapy programs cause at conferences across the nation.

Given that emotional background, it's disappointing that he didn't find Iowa State's "safe" environment quite so welcoming. "I thought it was going to be a place where everything would be easy," Wilson said. "But it's not that way. It's not a magical place where you just all of a sudden don't have to worry about being gay."

His freshman year was difficult. "Walking on campus, I'd hear students throwing out homophobic remarks such as 'Oh, look at that fag over there.' or 'He's so gay.' I'd ask myself, 'If they are talking like that about someone else, how would they feel about me if they knew?'"

Wilson attributes the appointment two years ago of a fulltime coordinator of LGBT student services, the first at an Iowa state college, for improving the atmosphere. "He's able to bring faculty, staff, administrators and students to the table to discuss issues affecting LGBT students and do something about them so we can be successful in college life," he explained.

Because of the economy, state colleges throughout the nation are facing budget cutbacks. Iowa State is no different. "People sometimes question why there's a need for the coordinator," he continued. "I think the answer's simple: this position saves lives."

Last year, Wilson became the first openly gay student at Iowa State to run for campus government office. In a two-way race, he campaigned for student body vice president and lost by only 400 out of 4,000 votes. "It was definitely a good run," he said.

But one incident surprised Wilson. Someone wrote "fag" above his name on a campaign sign and posted it prominently in a residence hall.

"I've grown some thick skin and have learned to be happy with who I am, but for someone who is just coming out that would have been devastating. I can just imagine what harm it would cause to their developmental process."

Wilson is working with students and administrators to address a panoply of LGBT issues. For example, transgender students have difficulty finding gender-neutral restrooms and the university's budgetary constraints make it hard to find funds to print resource materials.

Penn State: Town/Gown Conflicts

Latina lesbian Yvette Isela Lerma was 13 when she came out in her hometown, Nogales, Ariz. Now at Penn State, Lerma has held leadership positions at its University Park campus, including president of the Rainbow Roundtable, a coalition of LGBT organizations, and student government LGBT affairs director.

As an intern at the LGBT student resource center, she helped coordinate its Straight Talks program, one of the largest peer education programs in the nation that focus on LGBT identity development.

Lerma currently chairs the Student Concerns Committee on Penn State's Commission for LGBT Equity and is a member of the Latino Caucus and the LGBT people of color organization.

State College, the town where Penn State is located, is fairly conservative, however. The incidents of harassment Lerma and other LGBT students have suffered mostly happen there.

"Some downtown clubs have rainbow nights, but once my partner and I went to a club on another night," she told EDGE. "We were physically assaulted on the dance floor."

In another incident, one of her friends was walking downtown in drag after leaving a gay club. "A bunch of guys circling the block in a truck screamed obscenities at him and his partner," Lerma said.

Those experiences taught her to be more careful, she told EDGE. Being a member of two minority groups sometimes complicates her life as well.

At a recent meeting of the LGBT people of color group where the topic was interracial dating, "It turned into a big debate and grew all out of proportion," Lerma explained. "People tend to think we are of the same community and therefore we are going to agree on all issues. People don't seem to be as respectful of one another at one would think."

Faculty, administrators and staff also say homophobia affects them. Many fear for their jobs.

Sue Rankin, a Penn State associate professor and the Campus Pride survey's lead author, explained to EDGE that junior faculty particularly worry about how out of the closet they can be even on inclusive campuses. "They ask such questions as 'Can I still get tenure if I'm out?' and 'Can I focus on LGBT issues in my research or in the classroom?'" she said.

Employees at welcoming colleges are sometimes uncomfortable, although they may be internalizing because their perceptions don't match reality, Rankin added. "Regardless, it is the individual's reality."

Among Campus Pride's recommendations based on the survey results are that all colleges and universities develop and commit to inclusive policies, integrate LGBT issues in curriculums, respond to anti-gay incidents and bias, create spaces for student dialogue in campus residences, offer comprehensive counseling and healthcare, and improve recruitment and retention efforts for students and employees.

But the most optimistic projection may be that successive generations of students and faculty will finally shed the last vestiges of homophobia.

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].